Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Baby Making" by Cynara Stites

I was contemplating becoming a single mother without realizing it. When I was 27 years old, a UConn professor invited me to join other “older” single people as guest speakers in a college class on Adult Development. One college student, who seemed to pity us, asked how we felt about not having children. When I said I would consider having a baby if I wasn’t married by age 35, the students were horrified. I was surprised that this idea popped out of my mouth because I wasn’t aware of ever having this thought.

My prospects for marriage and motherhood seemed remote after the break-up of my last serious relationship with a man. Still single at age 30, I offered to lead a “Baby? Maybe” group at the UConn Women’s Center for women like me who were undecided about having children. One woman told the group she was afraid she would lose her husband if they had children. A 36-year-old single woman unexpectedly longed to have a baby twelve years after she had convinced a doctor to tie her tubes. When the group watched a childbirth film, a married woman, who was terrified of childbirth, fled out the door at the moment the infant was born.

I cried with joy when the baby was born in the film. I realized that I was not ambivalent about having a baby. I just needed to figure out how to do it. No role models for such a radical undertaking existed. The term “single mother by choice” would not appear in the nation’s lexicon for several years.

A single woman cannot explain why she wants a child any better than a married woman can. Did having no husband require me to have a special, compelling reason for wanting to be a mother? Why should my unmarried status disqualify me for motherhood? I wasn’t afraid of defying social convention, but, for a single woman, baby making requires special planning.

I launched into my baby making project in my typically organized manner. When I went for my physical examination at age 30, my family doctor asked me, “How are you dealing with issues of your 30s?” I replied, “I’m thinking of having a baby on my own.” He got flustered, dropped the chart, and stammered: “I will help you in any way I can . . . as your doctor, I mean.”

What I expected to be the hardest task turned out to be easy: finding a sperm donor. My good friend, Michael, was a gay man who offered to help me get pregnant. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to being straight,” he said.

Michael and I proceeded to try amateur, at-home artificial insemination. This was not a romantic experience. Daily readings from my basal body temperature thermometer indicated when ovulation would be occurring. On that fertile day, I phoned Michael to tell him I was leaving for the 30 minute drive to his apartment. By the time I arrived, Michael had produced a semen sample that he stored in a plastic wine glass. Running up the back stairs to his apartment, we giggled like audacious co-conspirators. Michael, who was too embarrassed to witness the insemination, disappeared into the shower. I immediately encountered a problem trying to pour the viscous semen from the plastic wine glass into a turkey baster. This was time consuming, and I didn’t know how long sperm can live outside the body. The usefulness of a turkey baster for this purpose is highly overrated.

On our second attempt at artificial insemination a month later, I skipped the turkey baster. I lay down, inserted a plastic speculum, and opened it. I poured the semen from the plastic wine glass into the open arms of the speculum. I pulled my knees up to my chest for fifteen minutes or so to allow gravity to aid the sperm in their quest for an egg.

As I was closing the plastic speculum and pulling it out, the speculum broke into pieces. A vaginal discharge developed several days later. When my doctor’s partner, who was not aware of my baby-making project, examined me using a real metal speculum, he exclaimed, “There’s something in there!” My face flushed as I realized I had not retrieved all the plastic speculum pieces. I mumbled a suspect explanation that I had used a plastic speculum to see my cervix, even though that particular women’s body awareness craze was passé. I didn’t know yet that I was pregnant.

Nine months later, my baby-making project culminated in a dramatic outcome. In the final stage of labor in a hospital delivery room, I watched in the wall-mounted mirror as my infant’s head emerged. When I pushed again, one of the infant’s shoulders appeared. The obstetrician said, “On the next push, when the other shoulder comes out, you can pull the baby out.” I brought my infant into the world and ceremoniously held my newborn infant up. My newborn’s head wobbled precariously and the umbilical cord trailed behind. “It’s a girl!” I exclaimed with delight. “Welcome to the world, Jessica. I’ve been waiting a long time for you.” I settled Jessica gently on my chest. We locked eyes and imprinted on each other. Five months shy of my 35th birthday, I was a single mother by choice.

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